Some Good Advice for Journalism Students: Start Your Reporting ASAP

 At the start of every semester, I tell my journalism students two things: get started on your reporting early, because it always takes more time than you think it will. And once you've done all your interviews and gathered your information, write the story as fast as you can, because that's how professional reporters on real deadlines work.

Some students follow this advice, others don't. My students are required to write at least one article for every issue the student newspaper publishes. But when the deadline for the first issue rolls around, I get a series of frantic emails from students who started their reporting too late, only to discover their stories won't be done in time.

The excuses are the same every semester. "The professor I need to interview didn't get back to me in time," a student tells me. "I couldn't reach the coach of the basketball team to talk to him about how the season is going," another says.

These aren't necessarily bad excuses. It's often the case that sources you need to interview can't be reached in time. Emails and phone calls go unanswered, usually when a deadline is fast approaching.

But let me return to what I said in the lede of this story: reporting always takes more time than you think it will, which is why you should start reporting as early as possible.

This shouldn't be much of a problem for the journalism students at my college; our student paper is only published every two weeks, so there's always be plenty of time to complete stories.

For some students, it doesn't work out that way.

I understand the desire to procrastinate. I was a college student once too, a century or so ago, and I pulled my share of all-nighters writing research papers that were due the next morning.

Here's the difference: you don't have to interview lives sources for a research paper. When I was a student all you had to do was trudge over to the college library and find the books or academic journals you needed. Of course, in the digital age, students don't even have to do that. With the click of a mouse they can Google the information they need, or access an academic database if necessary. However you do it, the information is available anytime, day or night.

And that's where the problem comes in. Students accustomed to writing papers for history, political science or English classes get used to the idea of being able to gather all the data they need at the last minute.

But that doesn't work with news stories, because for news stories we need to interview real people. You might need to talk to the college president about the latest tuition hike, or interview a professor about a book she's just published, or talk to the campus police if students are having their backpacks stolen.

The point is that this the kind of information you have to get, by and large, from talking to human beings, and human beings, especially the grown-up ones, tend to be busy. They may have work, kids and lots of other things to deal with, and chances are they won't be able to talk to a reporter from the student newspaper the moment he or she calls.

As journalists, we work at the convenience of our sources, not the other way round. They are doing us a favor by talking to us, not the other way round. All of which means that when we are assigned a story and we know we have to interview people for that story, we need to start contacting those people right away. Not tomorrow. Not the day after that. Not next week. Now.

Do that, and you should have no problem making deadlines, which is, quite possibly, the most important thing a working journalist can do.